“The future, like everything else, is no longer quite what it used to be,” the French poet Paul Valéry wrote in 1937. Looking back on the decades that followed, that often rings true, especially when considering the utopian architecture that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, then faded out in the 1970s.
Post–World War II, architects were confident that a better life could be built, that design could improve society through efficiency and community. And these designs could be radically different from the ones of the past. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes harnessed geometric strength in service of affordable and space-saving structures, and were constructed at idealistic events like the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. Herb Greene’s 1961 Prairie House gained the nickname “prairie chicken” for its bird-like shape that incorporated wood materials inside and out, creating a private sanctuary out on the Oklahoma plains. And Zvi Hecker’s Ramot Polin, commissioned just after the conclusion of the Six-Day War, looked more like a beehive than a housing complex, but offered compact, necessary amenities for a population settling in the recently secured territory.
These projects, their successes and failures, are explored in The Tale of Tomorrow: Utopian Architecture in the Modernist Realm, recently released by Gestalten. In his introduction, editor Robert Klanten writes that “for thirty years or so, in the heart of the 20th century, it felt like architecture might save the world.” It was during these decades that architecture became “a broad tent under which communists and individualists, engineers and artists, modernists and metabolists all gathered.”
Fellow editor Sofia Borges adds in her essay:
Not to be confused with modernism, which also reached its formal maturity during this period, the utopian architecture movement aligned itself less with rationalism and streamlined linear solutions. Instead the visionary practitioners of this era began to design with a social agenda in mind, a plan for the future today.
Today, many of these grand gestures of societal improvement are already gone or deteriorating. Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, completed in 1975, had an ambitious quatrefoil tower that brought together previously detached medical departments; it was demolished in 2013 to make way for new construction. Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, completed in Tokyo in 1972, now appears more dystopic than utopic, its concrete streaked and many of its layered spaces abandoned.
And the exuberant building on the cover of The Tale of Tomorrow has long been scattered rubble. Called the Monsanto House of the Future, it was opened in 1957 at Disney’s Tomorrowland in California. A joint venture with the Monsanto corporation, the cantilevered home made of concrete and plastic anticipated the dawning Space Age. It only stood for a decade until it was torn down — although, as the editors note, it “proved so well-built that it withstood the initial wrecking ball and took more than two weeks to demolish completely.”
The Tale of Tomorrow does discuss some buildings that became icons, including two examples in New York: Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center, which, after its own preservation challenges, is on its way to becoming a hotel, and the United Nations Headquarters, which fused modernism with organic design thanks to the work of an international group of architects, among them Oscar Niemeyer, Le Corbusier, Wallace Harrison, and Max Abramovitz.
Alongside these, the book exhumes some architects who are now overlooked, including Bruce Goff. His chapter comes right after that of the better-known Le Corbusier, and it positions Goff’s photograph across from a picture of his stunning Bavinger House in Norman, Oklahoma. Supported on a central mast, with one sweeping wall of locally collected sandstone mixed with salvaged blue glass, the home spiraled like DNA. It included hovering floors and a cave-like interior that remained cool despite the Western heat. Artists Nancy and Eugene Bavinger built it as a collaborative project with their students in 1955. It no longer exists. After a windstorm in 2011, the house was closed to the public, and this April was reported destroyed by its owner.
Each building in The Tale of Tomorrow is shown in its prime. Looking at the saturated images of such vibrant, eccentric architecture, it’s hard not to feel a yearning for that kind of experimental optimism in our structures today. However, the era is also a reminder that architecture can’t solve our problems. In the end, it’s the people using the buildings who determine their successes, and perhaps the reason architecture took a different turn is that people don’t generally want to live in UFOs and modernist caves. The utopia was never realized, but these aspirations in concrete, glass, and steel recall a time when architecture promised a more positive tomorrow.